Over the years, Project Runway has made silly changes: We’re in L.A. now! There’s no more contest for the models! Now it’s all team challenges! Those “twists” added nothing to the show, and as the show has progressed, Runway has really struggled to maintain the right balance of appealing and talented designers who still engage at least a little bit in interpersonal conflicts. The show has introduced more and more audacious, arbitrary product placements, which seems to detract from crafting appropriately difficult challenges that elicit a range of garments from the various contestants. It’s your classic case of reality TV’s diminishing returns.
Or it was, until this season. Because the show got good again! It feels like a wee miracle that twelve seasons in, Project Runway has its mojo back, but here we are.
Last season was all team challenges, which indicated just how much producers misunderstood the inherent drama of the series. Team challenges — where the designers work in pairs or trios — rarely prompt exceptional garments. Instead, they create and foster constant fighting. Just … constant fighting. And while Runway has never shied away from its villains, chronic bickering between contestants is not entertaining or enjoyable in the long term. After a few episodes, it feels like you’re in the front seat of a car, with two antagonistic 7-year-olds in the back screaming about keeping one’s hands to oneself. If you two don’t stop arguing, I will turn this show right around, and none of us will get to see grandma.
Better than a constant antagonist, at least in the Runway world, is a loony bird. Just a real, deep-down weirdo, who will say weird things and design weird dresses and frustrate Nina Garcia and make Tim Gunn say “hmmmm” kindly but firmly. And this season gave us two of those people! First was Timothy, a sustainability-obsessed “fiber artist” whose ecoconsciousness was so intense that he refused to heat-style his model’s hair, on account of not wanting to use electricity. On the first episode, he also wanted his model to do sort of a modern dance on the runway, rather than just walk, and his instructions were ridiculous. “Be sad like the Virgin Mary,” he instructed. “Sort of sniff your armpit.” This went on forever. It was like Waiting for Guffman, only actually excruciating and not just a parody of excruciatingness.
There was also Sandro, a very high-energy Russian guy with a dramatic mustache and baffling shirt wardrobe.
Sandro also had nicknames for everyone, including “Irish” and “Amish,” and he called Tim Gunn “Top Gun[n].” And he had constant beef with judge Zac Posen.
Timothy and Sandro were both a lot, though, and while that’s good in the early weeks when there are just too many designers to care about, as a season wears on, one’s appetite for lunacy diminishes. And miraculously, neither Timothy nor Sandro is still on. Timothy was eliminated after a challenge, and Sandro was eliminated after storming off the set and punching a camera. Both made for excellent television — in limited doses. And that’s exactly what we got.
While there are still points of conflict between the contestants — Alexandria and Ken might eventually kill one another with their icy stares — the more important factor is that some of these people are pretty damn good designers. Adorable Dom has a sophisticated but still girly style. Season eleven return contestant Kate’s super-femme designs are as gorgeous as ever, but now have a little more edge. Alexandria has impeccable construction and more of an avant-garde look than her competitors. Jeremy and Brandon seem unstoppable. Helen has lots of tattoos! Justin is deaf and has an ASL interpreter whom you can sometimes see! Alexander only has the center half of his eyebrows, seemingly on purpose! There is something for everyone.
On last night’s episode, Justin was eliminated for making a dress that looked like it had “a foaming vagina,” according to Nina Garcia. (It did look like that.) But all the other designers love Justin, and they all started crying. Then Tim Gunn started crying, too, and used his “Tim Gunn save” — which allows him to reinstate one eliminated contestant — to keep Justin in the running. The final moments of the show were a tsunami of fashion tears. (I was a mess.) This is the kind of thing that makes Project Runway fantastic in the first place: Fundamentally, it is about design, but there’s room for feelings and personality and camaraderie and conflict. Runway ran out of steam for a while there, but I’ll take back my auf Wiedersehen. This season is definitely in.